How did you become interested in studying Japan?
I started relatively late in my undergraduate years. Initially I was actually most interested in European history, particularly France and Germany. I took a course on Japanese history by chance, because of a distribution requirement. When I was exposed to Japanese history, all of a sudden it opened up to me that there was one non-Western country that developed much as many European nations had, and at almost the same time. Japan emerged as a great power and challenged the United States by the 1930s. I began my studies in the early 1970s, when we were in the throes of the Vietnam War, and it occurred to me then that here’s this really important place that was Asia’s first challenge--and even the Third World’s first challenge--to the Western-dominated order, and it was a challenge that wouldn’t stop with Japan, but emerged with China, and now of course with Islamic fundamentalism. I was grabbed by the idea of a non-Western force that would rise to threaten Western hegemony. Japan was a nation that offered many alternative visions--in culture, in social organization--and yet accomplished power by the standards recognized by Western countries. So in a sense it was the Vietnam War that informed how I first got into Japan.
In Molding Japanese Minds you describe how the government has mobilized Japanese society in the 20th century through nationwide “moral suasion” campaigns. What were these like?
In 1950s and ‘60s, to give an example, the campaigns tended to focus on issues of economy and public health. There would be campaigns in the countryside to encourage women to keep very careful account books in order to manage the family budget. There were campaigns designed to “rationalize” and modernize people’s lives. The housewife was urged not to waste money on luxuries or on her husband’s drinking, but instead to buy a new refrigerator so she could improve her children’s diet. The people were constantly reminded to avoid waste. Rather than waste, one should save one’s income and invest it in the country, because the country needs capital to industrialize. And the message was highly coordinated. You would get it in the schools. You’d get it from your local women’s group and from your neighborhood group. You’d get it in the local citizen hall, which was sponsored by the government. You’d see it in the media.
In some ways the results sound desirable--low crime rates, high rates of saving. What are the minuses?
The cozy relationship between state and society in Japan has had pluses and minuses. There are a lot of minuses. Most obvious was the people’s failure to stop the regime from plunging Japan into World War II. There was not enough space permitted for what we call “civil society,” for independent voices that might have been able to stand up and say, “We’re headed in the wrong direction.” Nearly everyone was too enmeshed in the system. Even liberals and progressives and socialists had been co-opted as official or unofficial state deputies in these government-sponsored campaigns. And this remained a problem in the postwar period. It has been very difficult, for instance, for consumer groups to come forward to challenge producers or to challenge the state (which has heavily regulated the economy in the interests of producers) because such groups have generally been enmeshed in state campaigns and have received subsidies at the local level. A similar situation existed with the environmental movement.
But it has its pluses, particularly in the postwar period. There are a lot of things that Americans may envy. You have in Japan a healthy, literate population. People are reasonably aware of public affairs. Japan works very well. Americans don’t understand this, because Japan has had ten years of recession. Yet the measures of social dysfunction are pretty mild compared with the United States. Crime is fairly low, drug use is fairly low, the divorce rate is fairly low, educational standards are still very high. People have seen their incomes stagnate over the last ten years, but most households sit on considerable savings. While life could be better, life is at a pretty decent, comfortable level, society works pretty well, and it makes Japanese very reluctant to tear up the system.
After 1868 Japan modeled itself on the West and attempted to modernize very quickly. Were there certain Western values that never took hold?
In Molding Japanese Minds and in my subsequent work I actually question whether there exists a monolithic “Western” set of values and institutions. We tend to conflate America with West. A lot of things the Japanese state did in the last hundred years, particularly this very heavy-handed mobilization of society, these moral suasion movements, have origins and influences in Continental European countries, and even to some extent in Britain, which we think of as a liberal society. Japanese leaders constructed a very intrusive state in the late 19th century, at a time when most European governments were engaged in Great Power rivalries against each other and were intensely mobilizing their own populations. Military conscription, constructing new systems of taxation, getting people to save money in government banks, centralized education systems--all sorts of things that were all focused on mobilizing their citizens for national strength. This is when Japan slots itself into the modern order. Japan may have gone a bit further than the European cases, but not by much. The Japanese bureaucracy was very much like the French bureaucracy.
Do you find that students come to the study of Japan, or more broadly the study of any foreign country, with certain kinds of preconceptions?
Students often want to separate the world into those who follow the United States and those who are just weird. Japan is a wonderful case through which to explore this idea, because Americans have viewed 20th-century Japan in both ways. It’s interesting to look at the popular images. On the one hand, Japanese have been seen as good followers: mild-mannered, orderly people who play baseball, the American game, and dance to jazz and wear American blue jeans. To Americans, those Japanese are okay! But at other times the Japanese come across as strange and even inhuman. They’re “fanatics”; they don’t make sense; they have kamikaze planes that dive into aircraft carriers. Or we see them as workaholics who live in rabbit hutches.
I try to tell my students from the first day, you can’t view the Japanese from an American-centered perspective. You have to read what they say, how they explain themselves, how they talk among themselves. They never call themselves fanatics, after all. Whatever they call themselves, we’ve got to read it and understand it. There is a logic within Japan. There are rules of the game in every society. We have to get inside a foreign culture and understand internally how it works. In 1940 we were confronting what we thought was fanatical emperor worship from the Japanese. They seemed to have had no contact with Western civilization; they were inscrutable, incomprehensible. Today we’re describing our current enemy, Islamic fundamentalists, in much the same way. Whether it’s good or bad, there are ways that Islamic fundamentalists see the world. To call them terrorists and fanatics is simply to say they’re different from us and we don’t understand them. But clearly we’ve got to delve more deeply.